Brisbane — Australian men once routinely referred to their closest friend as “an old bastard” in the confident knowledge his mate would never accuse him of being insensitive or even inaccurate.
Being born outside wedlock even a mere 40 years ago still carried serious social stigma.
But such a potentially inflammatory insult was received in the affectionate spirit in which it was delivered, and there’s no record of a recipient seeking compensation or a court-ordered apology.
Australia’s federal Parliament is expected to soon pass legislation many suggest will make it illegal to diminish or demean our fellow human beings.
Not even the most rabid opponents of proposed new anti-discrimination laws (still in draft form) suggest they’ll make outlaws of two aging Australians insulting one another in the front bar of their local pub.
But there are credible suggestions Australia, one of the few western democracies without a bill of rights, is moving toward a new cotton-woollen age where the government plays nanny in the national nursery.
Mark Dreyfus, a federal cabinet secretary in the ruling Labour government connected with the framing of the legislation, says there’s nothing to be afraid of.
“It’s not going to be illegal to insult or offend anyone,’’ he told the ABC current affairs show “The 7.30 Report.”
Dreyfus said the new laws would do little more than consolidate five existing acts to give a more coherent legal framework to Australia’s anti-discrimination law.
While Section 19 of the proposed act defines discrimination as behaviour that offends, insults or discriminates, the law would do nothing more than defend the most vulnerable against brutal verbal attack, he said.
He offered up the scenario of a woman constantly harassed by a boss who demeans and denigrates her on a daily basis.
“They are designed to give protection against a woman who has a superior who says, ‘You are useless, you are just a woman, what would you know.’”
Opposition MP George Brandis, a highly credentialed lawyer, believes something far more sinister than the protection of the vulnerable is underway.
He identifies a new definition of what constitutes discrimination residing in the new laws, which include bans on insulting someone based on political opinion or social origins.
“I think we should have a zero-tolerance approach toward laws, which tell us what we may say or what we may not say in political discussion,’ he said.
Sen. Brandis says the Australian Liberal/National Party Opposition is strongly against imposing moral, political or cultural censorship where an expression of an opinion can lead you into a courtroom.
Oddly enough, the new laws may yet hold up the rights of religious organizations to maintain their own brand of discrimination against those who don’t match their view of the world.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose de facto relationship with her live-in partner could possibly preclude her from employment at a Christian school, says the nation should remain calm while the framework of the laws is hammered out.
She says the laws are only in a draft form.
“We’ll get the feedback and we’ll consider it,’’ she says.
» Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.